HOW long ago those televised pictures seem - flickering images of US helicopters crossing the war-torn Saigon skyline. Yet, despite the years, Vietnam has never really been far from the thoughts of Americans. Without exaggeration, the Vietnam war shaped the outlook of an entire generation of Americans, many of whom are now filling, or starting to fill, positions of authority in US government and industrial circles. In numerical terms, the number of Vietnam-era veterans is starting to equal the remaining numbers of World War II veterans in US society.
For just such circumstances, the current change of leadership in Vietnam will be given unusual scrutiny by Americans. The changes themselves - including the resignation this past week of the three top leaders - are remarkable. Pham Van Dong, Le Duc Tho, and Truong Chinh were towering figures in their own national setting who had emerged triumphant from the long revolutionary struggle with the French and, later, the Americans. Moreover, the new Communist Party chief, Nguyen Van Linh, represents a break with the past. Although born in North Vietnam, his period of political importance is linked to South Vietnam. He has sought to liberalize somewhat the heavy-fisted state direction of the Vietnamese economy.
Western nations, and particularly the United States, would be unwise to make too much of the changes. The party is still in control. The new leaders, while slightly younger, are still dedicated communists in their 70s. Then again, it would be unwise to make too little of the shifts. Vietnam now recognizes the need for reform. And Moscow, which has been subsidizing Hanoi to the tune of a billion or more dollars a year, wants more economic self-sufficiency for its client.
Will the new leadership gradually wind down the costly war in Cambodia? That would certainly ease tensions in South Asia. And what about more-amicable ties with the United States? Could that happen?
There is a precedent: the close US link with Japan, despite the terrible war that raged between those two nations.
One quick step that would improve ties with Washington: Hanoi should make a full accounting on the MIA (missing-in-action) issue.
Deep down, Americans cannot be expected to remain indifferent to Vietnam. They invested too much in that nation. Rather, Americans will be watching the new leadership in Hanoi with not a little amount of well-intentioned concern for the people of that unhappy land.